Reporters wait in a largely empty press briefing room at the White House after being excluded from spokesman Sean Spicer's daily news update -- which was a restricted, closed-door event on Friday. Among the outlets denied access to the briefing were The New York Times, CNN, Politico, the Los Angeles Times and The Hill. Outlets including Fox News, Breitbart and the Washington Times were allowed in. Photo by Olivier Douliery/UPI/Pool | License Photo
Feb. 24 (UPI) -- The row between President Donald Trump's administration and the mainstream news media escalated Friday, as a number of outlets were denied access to White House spokesman Sean Spicer's daily briefing -- a move some say is an unprecedented act.
Rather than holding the traditional daily question-and-answer event in the press room, Spicer held an off-camera "gaggle" session with reporters from select news organizations in his West Wing office instead.
The New York Times, CNN, the Los Angeles Times and Politico were among those barred from attendance -- while Breitbart, Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and the three major broadcast networks were part of the throng that was allowed in. Time magazine and The Associated Press were given access, but boycotted the unorthodox setup.
During the restricted briefing, Spicer spoke of a desire by the administration to fight "false" reporting.
"We are going to aggressively push back," he said after being asked by a reporter if the change was a punitive measure, according to an audio recording of the session. "We are just not going to sit back and let, you know, false narratives, false stories, inaccurate facts get out there."
In the recording, Spicer also said his decision to scale-down the briefing was a strategic act based on the fact that Trump spoke Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
"We haven't done briefings when the president has had a major event," he said. "Our job is to make sure that we are responsive to folks in the media. We are here all day. We've got a big staff and we want to make sure we answer your questions. We don't need to do everything on camera every day."
The White House Correspondents' Association, which represents the presidential press corps, quickly denounced the move.
"The WHCA board is protesting strongly against how today's gaggle is being handled by the White House," President Jeff Mason said in a statement. "We encourage the organizations that were allowed in to share the material with others in the press corps who were not. The board will be discussing this further with White House staff."
The White House emphasized that the reporter "pool" -- select media representatives who gather and furnish the information for use by all news outlets -- was included in the "gaggle" session.
"I think that we have shown an abundance of of accessibility," Spicer said. "We have actually gone above and beyond making ourselves, our team and our briefing room more accessible than probably any prior administration. I think you can take that to the bank."
Still, some of the rebuffed outlets expressed concern for the exclusionary nature of Friday's briefing.
"We strongly protest the exclusion of The New York Times and the other news organizations," Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said.
"Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties."
"The Wall Street Journal strongly objects to the White House's decision to bar certain media outlets from today's gaggle. Had we known at the time, we would not have participated and we will not participate in such closed briefings in the future," the Journal said after the briefing.
The practice of holding smaller "gaggle" sessions with reporters is not new at the White House. Prior administrations have held them on occasion, but many critics say a president selectively choosing news outlets which are mostly supportive of his agenda while blacklisting the more critical newsrooms is unprecedented.
CNN's report of the meeting Friday on its website carried a headline in large, bold letters that read, "An Unprecented Act".
Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron called the decision to make it a closed-door briefing "appalling".
"This is an undemocratic path that the administration is traveling," he said.
"In December, Spicer said barring media access is what a 'dictatorship' does," The Post said in a tweet Friday afternoon. "The Trump White House's press problems just keep getting worse."
Politico similarly cited previous remarks from Spicer promising that the Trump administration would not selectively ban news outlets.
"We have a respect for the press," Spicer said in the December interview. "When it comes to the government, that is something you can't ban an entity from, conservative, liberal or otherwise. That's what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship."
The White House had planned a normal briefing for Friday in the James S. Brady Press Room, but later changed the meeting to a restricted, off-camera event.
The abrupt change came on the heels of a new controversy -- news that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus asked the FBI this month to publicly debunk reports about purported discussions between Trump campaign members and Russian intelligence agents over the past year.
According to sources, Priebus unsuccessfully appealed to FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe on Feb. 15 to publicly convey the bureau's preliminary belief that the allegations are inaccurate. The White House confirmed Priebus' request to the bureau but said the contact was initiated by the FBI.
"We merely asked them to inform journalists of the same point that they were making to us," Spicer said at his closed-door briefing Friday. "We didn't try to knock the story down. We asked them to tell the truth."
Direct contact between the White House and the FBI is unusual and can potentially violate standard procedures that bar discussions between the two about ongoing investigations. The bureau is currently investigating potential contact between Russian agents and Trump's team.
Some observers opined Friday that such a departure from tradition in light of current circumstances might be perceived as nothing more than a punitive measure from a president who's been under constant scrutiny by the news media -- especially for reported missteps -- since he took office a month ago.
Spicer, at times, has also had somewhat terse exchanges with reporters during his daily briefings.
Trump has repeatedly disparaged the mainstream news media since beginning his presidential campaign in mid-2015. He often refers to the Times as "the failing New York Times" and dismisses the bulk of the criticism he receives in the press as "fake news."
Earlier this month, Trump called the mainstream media an "enemy of the people" -- an assertion he reiterated Friday at CPAC.
"[The news media] doesn't represent the people, it never will represent the people, and we're going to do something about it," he said.
"Don't believe the main stream (fake news) media," he said in a tweet last week. "The White House is running VERY WELL."